Creativity sparks a bright future for science

When some people want to see the future they use a crystal ball. Others use tarot cards or runes. But when anyone at CIRM wants to see the future all we have to do is look into the faces of the students in our Creativity program.

Creativity students 2015 with program director Dr. Mani Vessal (front & center with tie)

Creativity students 2015 with program director Dr. Mani Vessal (front & center with tie)

Over the past three years the Creativity program has given some 220 California high school students a chance to spend the summer working in a world-class stem cell research facility. And when I say work, I mean work. They are required to attend lectures, grow their own stem cells, and do experiments. In short, they are expected to do what all the other scientists in the lab do. In return they get a great experience, and a modest stipend for their effort. At the end they produce papers on their work with titles like:

  • Notch Signaling as a Possible Regulator of Mesenchymal Stromal Cell Differentiation in the Hematopoietic Stem Cell Niche
  • RNA Splicing Factor ZRSR2 in Human Erythroleukemia and Stem Cells

We also ask the students to either write a blog or create a video about their experiences over the summer. Many do both. We’ll come back to the video portion later this week. The blogs make for a great read because they chart the students as they progress from knowing little if anything about stem cells, to being quite proficient at working with them. And all in just 8 weeks. One of the hardest parts of our job is choosing the best blog. For example Alice Lin, part of the City of Hope program, got an honorable mention for her blog that was a “diary” written by an embryonic stem cell. Here’s a small sample of her approach:

‘Also, this is NOT YOUR TYPICAL LAB JOURNAL ENTRY. It’s an autobiography chronicling my life. That way, when the stem cell controversy cools down, the general public can get a FIRST HAND ACCOUNT of what we do. This blog is going to rack up some serious views someday. Until then, I’m attached to my colony and the plate.’

Ryan Hale, part of the Scripps team, wrote about how the experience taught him to think like a scientist:

‘One day, after performing an experiment, our mentor asked us the reason behind our experiment. He wasn’t asking us about the experimental procedure or quizzing us on the pre-reading packet, he wanted us to understand the thought process a researcher would go through to actually think up such an experiment… Our mentor stressed how important it is to be creative, inquisitive, and critical if one wants to become a successful researcher.’

Selena Zhang

Selena Zhang

The winner was Selena Zhang, also part of the City of Hope team. She writes about her experiences in the lab, learning the ropes, getting to understand the technology and language of science. But it’s her closing paragraph that sealed the deal for us. In a few short sentences she manages to capture the romance, the mystery and the magic of science. And we’re also happy to say that this program is coming back next year, and the year after that, for five more years. Our Board has just approved renewed funding. The name of the program is changing, it will be called SPARK, but the essence will remain the same. Giving young students a glimpse at a future in science. You don’t need a crystal ball to know that with these students the future is bright. Here’s Selena’s winning blog:

My very own lab coat. It was a lot to live up to, my freshly laundered lab coat with the City of Hope logo. Looking around the lab, I was nervous and excited to start my very first day. There were papers to read and meetings with my mentor to hear about my project. I was starstruck, as I learned that I would be working with induced pluripotent stem cells, Alzheimer’s disease, and CRISPR. Terms that seemed to only exist in textbooks and science magazines that I lovingly read at the library were suddenly alive to me. Although, embarrassingly enough, the only thing that came to mind when my mentor mentioned CRISPR was a salad crisper. Fairly certain that she was a) speaking about something else and b) that I needed to eat more for breakfast, I asked her what that was. It turned out that CRISPR was a new genome editing tool we could use to create isogenic lines to study the independent effects of each allele of the APOE gene that is the most significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s. We would do this by converting a patient and wild-type fibroblast into induced pluripotent stem cells. From this, we would edit a normal allele into the patient’s cell for rescue and the mutated allele in the wild-type cell for insertion, respectively. We would eventually differentiate these cells into neurons and astrocytes to study how the change of this allele can impact neural interaction. This was real science in progress, not enshrined in a textbook, but free, fluid, and vibrant. I slowly grew into my own independence around the lab. I found myself more confident and emotionally invested with each experiment, every immunostaining and PCR. Science, for all of its realism, had always seemed like the unimaginable fantasy to me. Through this opportunity, science has become more tangible, grounded in unglamorous details: hard work and deadlines, mistakes and mishaps, long lab meetings and missed lunches. Yet, that has only made me more confident that I want to pursue science. Now, I’m embracing a reality, one that gives me something worth striving for. In fact, I am very fortunate that my project has encountered numerous obstacles. My initial response to these problems was and still is a lot less Zen and a lot more panic-driven. But I’ve slowly come to realize the beauty of the troubleshooting process for progress. My project has been an emotional rollercoaster, as our rescue cell line met success, but couldn’t advance to the next stage. Our insertion cell line appeared to have incorporated the mutation, but it turned out it only incorporated one allele. It’s been a process of finding the balance between defending our ideas and accepting new ones, the border between defending and defensiveness. My curiosity and drive to improve, to understand, to conquer the unknown is learning to coexist with the need for patience and flexibility No matter how solid our theory should have been, reality is fickle and all the more interesting for it. I thought science was all about doubt and skepticism, questioning everything. Through this internship, I’ve learned that there’s also a surprising amount of faith, the faith to accept any setbacks as part of the discovery process. I thought I loved science before because I loved how enough facts could help me make sense of things. But through this internship in the lab, I’m learning to love a larger part of science, which is not only loving knowledge, but also loving not knowing, loving discovery for all of its uncertainty and perfect imperfections. I’m learning to grow into my lab coat, and hopefully, to find my place in the field of science.

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